The Playbook, Inning 9: Mastering the 2023 fantasy baseball player pool

Knowing as many details as possible for as many players as possible is crucial to fantasy baseball success. AP

(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. The following 2023 analysis is new.)

We've gone through the basics of fantasy baseball, discussed auction strategy and how to build a cheat sheet. We've also provided in-season trade and free-agency tips, dug deep into the advanced stats (including those provided by Statcast) and examined the latest trends around the league. Still, even with all those tools at your disposal, there's no greater truth to fantasy baseball success than this:

The key ingredient to winning a championship is an extensive knowledge of the player pool itself.

The final edition of the Playbook provides a window into my own Playbook, a file containing notes on hundreds of players, which I create throughout the offseason as I do my own player research. It's from this file -- a Word document, in this case -- that I craft, and often adjust, my player rankings and ultimately drive my own cheat sheets.

This is an exhaustive process, one for which I'm grateful to have the time. It is not one that is easy for everyone to do in detail, which is why I consider this space a good place to share some of my more unusual findings. They're things you might want to consider when drafting any of the listed names, although my rankings ultimately provide you my best estimate of the player's current-season worth.

With that in mind, here are a few of those players who have sprung to the front of my mind as we get ready for the spring action to come:

Corey Seager: I'm well-known for my Seager love over the years, and he's particularly fascinating to me entering 2023, in large part because of the new rules limiting defensive shifts. He lost 61 points off his batting average last season, but had been seeing a dramatic rise in shifts over the past few seasons (only the years in which he played fairly regularly are shown):

  • 2016: 667 PA, 12.3% of his PAs facing a shift, .302 wOBA with shift, .378 without

  • 2017: 605 PA, 14.7% shift, .347 wOBA with, .364 wOBA without

  • 2019: 538 PA, 37.7% shift, .319 wOBA with, .353 wOBA without

  • 2021: 391 PA, 79.5% shift, .374 wOBA with, .435 wOBA without

  • 2022: 656 PA, 92.8% shift, .326 wOBA with, .397 wOBA without

I ran a basic defensive-shift query on Statcast's website, collecting pulled ground balls and line drives with a defensive shift employed that had at least an expected batting average of .500, but were instead converted into outs. Seager, predictably, led all hitters with 21 last season. As I wrote earlier in the Playbook, I think a very small percentage of us will be able to predict which hitter, specifically, will most benefit from the new rule governing shifts, but Seager would be my prime pick.

If you're curious, here was that leaderboard (pulled ground balls and line drives that had .500-plus Statcast expected batting average, facing a defensive shift, that became outs):

Jose Urquidy: The Houston Astros might rely more on Urquidy following Justin Verlander's free-agent departure, but he is one of the pitchers I'm most concerned about under the new shift rules. Again using the above criteria, but this time applying it to batted balls allowed by pitchers, here were 2022's top-10 leaders in grounders and line drives pulled into the shift for outs (with at least an expected batting average of .500):

Jose Ramirez: Among the most pertinent winter injury news was Ramirez's November surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right hand -- an injury he suffered on June 17 and played through after a two-game absence which caused him to often wear a brace. That gives quite an explanation for his more ordinary second half. You might recall that, earlier last year, he was often mentioned as a top candidate for AL MVP honors. Check out these splits:

  • 2021: 152 G, .266/.355/.548, 6.4% swinging-strike rate, 89.9 mph average exit velocity, 42.9% hard-hit rate

  • 2022 through 6/17: 60 G, .305/.397/.642, 5.3 SwStrk%, 88.1 mph avgEV, 40.1 HH%

  • 2022 after 6/17: 97 G, .264/.329/.437, 8.2 SwStrk%, 87.4 mph avgEV, 35.0 HH%

Ramirez is my No. 4 overall player (and No. 2 hitter) for points-based leagues, and he'd be my second player off the board in rotisserie formats.

Xander Bogaerts: Speaking of midseason injuries that impacted player performance, Bogaerts admitted in mid-August that the May 20 collision he had with Alex Verdugo had an impact on his performance at the plate. It's a subtle shift, but you can see the influence on his contact quality and ability to lift the ball:

  • 2019-21: .302/.375/.523, 42.0% ground ball rate, 90.2 mph average exit velocity, 44.3% hard-hit rate

  • 2021 through 5/20/22: .302/.374/487, 41.9 GB%, 89.3 mph avgEV, 43.2 HH%

  • 5/21/22 forward: .300/.374/.453, 46.1 GB%, 88.0 mph avgEV, 38.3 HH%

Keep an eye on Bogaerts this spring, but I think the San Diego Padres would have done their due diligence on him at signing time, meaning a mild rebound campaign seems likely.

Alex Lange: Detroit's trade of Gregory Soto was more logical than you might think, considering the skill set of Lange behind him. Lange broke through in a huge way in 2022, largely because he almost entirely stopped throwing his four-seam fastball (3.3% usage), instead playing up his elite curveball. That curveball had an MLB-leading 58% miss rate when hitters swung at it, and Lange's 44% miss rate on all pitches was second-most among all relief pitchers, trailing only Edwin Diaz's 50%. Lange's stuff is very much closer-worthy, and he could be one of 2023's best positional bargains.

Brandon Woodruff: Sure, an injury caused Woodruff to fall short of 2021's fantasy earnings, but after he returned from a circulatory condition last June, he was every bit as excellent as he was the year before:

  • 2021: 30 starts, 20 quality starts, 2.56 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 0.96 WHIP, 29.8% strikeout rate, 5.98 innings per start

  • 6/28/22 on: 18 GS, 13 QS, 2.38 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 1.00 WHIP, 31.6 K%, 6.09 IP/GS

It's probably best to toss aside the first three months of Woodruff's 2022, at least from an evaluative standpoint.

Byron Buxton: He has played in exactly 50% of Minnesota Twins games over the last three seasons and has batted .257/.317/.576 in those appearances while averaging 51 HR, 93 RBI, 14 SB and 110 runs scored per 162 games. There have been only eight instances in history of a player reaching each of those thresholds in a single season: Babe Ruth in 1921, Willie Mays in 1955, Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 and 1998, Sammy Sosa in 1998, Alex Rodriguez in 2001 and 2007 and Aaron Judge in 2022. Tuck that away, roto-league managers, when evaluating Buxton's risk/reward potential.

Fernando Tatis Jr.: Speaking of players who only appeared in half of their team's games, through four big-league seasons, Tatis has also played in exactly 50% of San Diego Padres games. In them, he has batted a more eye-popping .292/.369/.596 while averaging 48 HRs, 116 RBI, 31 SB and 125 runs scored, thresholds that have been reached in the same season only once in history, when Larry Walker did it as a member of the 1997 Colorado Rockies (hello, Coors Field).

If you're looking to build a case for Tatis being the best player in rotisserie formats once he's eligible to play on April 20, that's it. Points-league managers should consider, however, that Tatis' per-162-game career fantasy point total would have been 515.7. Three hitters finished with more than that in 2022: Judge (607), Ramirez (532) and Freddie Freeman (525) -- illustrating that Tatis' skill set isn't quite as dominating there as it is in roto.

Shane McClanahan: He was the only ERA-qualified pitcher last season with at least 50% ground ball and 25% strikeout rates, and his was one of only seven such seasons since 2000. Each of the previous six -- Randy Johnson's 2000 and 2002, Pedro Martinez's 2002, Clayton Kershaw's 2014 and 2015 and Corbin Burnes' 2021 -- earned the pitcher at least a top-three finish in Cy Young balloting (Martinez's 2002 and Kershaw's 2015 are the only ones that didn't win the award), leaving McClanahan's sixth-place finish last year as the outlier.

Nevertheless, McClanahan joined Kershaw's 2015 and Burnes' 2021 as the only such seasons to also have a hard-hit rate beneath 33.3% (or one-third of batted balls) in the eight-year Statcast era. So long as the shoulder issues he had late in the year don't persist during spring training, McClanahan should be in line for another excellent season.

Andres Munoz: Check out these very pretty numbers from 6/13/22 forward: 1.21 ERA (fourth among qualified relievers), 0.67 FIP (second), 100.5 mph average fastball velocity (second), 18 holds (third), 43.8% strikeout rate (fourth), .139 batting average allowed (fourth), 0.67 WHIP (third). Sure, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais loves his closer-by-committee arrangements, but holds are now worth two points in ESPN leagues this season.

Teoscar Hernandez: This was a heck of a pickup by the Mariners, especially on the heels of his huge-power second half. From 7/1 forward, Hernandez's 54.9% hard-hit rate was fifth-best in baseball, that exceeding his single-year best (53.5%, 2020) as well as his 49.3% rate from 2018-21. From Memorial Day forward, he batted .287/.333/.540 with 23 home runs, and would have been a top-30 overall player in rotisserie leagues. He's not in as HR-friendly an environment for 2023, but a player with his raw power should be able to breeze to 30 homers.

Michael Harris II: A cap tip to colleague Eric Karabell for bringing this to my attention. Harris' big rookie year came despite his having sub-5% walk and greater-than-50% ground ball rates. If you're wondering what's next, root for more patience and/or more lift in his swing, either of which bears watching during the spring. But if his rates in those two categories continue to hover where they were in 2022, consider that, since 2000, only 10 players have hit 20-plus homers in a batting title-eligible season where their rates fell below/above those same thresholds:

  • Garret Anderson, 35 in 2000

  • Javier Baez, 29 in 2019

  • Ivan Rodriguez, 27 in 2000

  • Torii Hunter, 27 in 2001

  • Adam Jones, 25 in 2011

  • Starling Marte, 23 in 2019

  • Vinny Castilla, 22 in 2003

  • Marquis Grissom, 21 in 2001

  • Starlin Castro, 21 in 2016

  • Darrin Fletcher, 20 in 2000

Incidentally, Hunter and Rodriguez were the only two from that group who had at least a 55% ground ball rate, as Harris had. Baez had a 49.1% hard-hit rate, however, so he'd be the template for Harris (45.3% HH) without any changes.

Grayson Rodriguez: His 2.12 FIP last season was the second-lowest among minor-league pitchers who worked at least as many as his 75 2/3 innings. That's as good a reason as any why he's considered perhaps the highest-impact prospective rookie pitcher entering 2023. And, if you're wondering who was the only pitcher who had a lower number than Rodriguez, that would be Philadelphia Phillies prospect Andrew Painter (2.02) -- another youngster who will have a legitimate chance at claiming a rotation spot during spring training.

Freddie Freeman: He easily led the majors in what our pitch-tracking tool deems "hard outs", his 81 exceeding second-best Seager's total by 13. It's also the most in a single year during the Statcast era. Freeman has routinely led the majors in this category and he's as apt to deliver high-quality contact in any of his at-bats as any hitter in the game. This is why he's arguably the safest (read: highest-floor) first-rounder around.

Andres Gimenez: Converesly, Gimenez led the majors with 18 "soft hits." That's particularly significant, considering he had the fourth-highest difference between his batting average (.297) and Statcast expected batting average (.257) in the wrong direction (40 points) among qualified batters. Gimenez is bound to regress somewhat from his outstanding 2022 numbers.

Cal Raleigh: From the date of his recall (5/7) forward, he hit 26 home runs -- four more than any other catcher during that time span. He also had a .509 slugging percentage. .289 isolated power and 91.4 mph average exit velocity, all of those again tops at his position. Plus, his 29.0% ground ball rate was the lowest among catchers. Raleigh might be a "three true outcomes" type, but he routinely hit for big power in the minors, with a .252 career ISO (.270 at the Triple-A level), meaning what we saw late last year is probably here to stay.

Jesus Luzardo: His mini-breakthrough was fueled in part by an improvement to his first-pitch strike rate by nearly 7%. One of the things working the most in his favor as he attempts to take another big leap forward is that his tempo is among the game's quickest, meaning he'll be one of the pitchers least likely to be affected by the pitch clock.

Last season, Luzardo averaged 16 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 20 with runners on base (that was third-quickest among pitchers who threw 1,000 pitches). Understand that that's not the measure being used with the pitch clock. That 16 seconds is his total time between pitches, whereas the pitch clock counts only the time during which the pitcher has the ball.

Kenley Jansen: It shouldn't be a surprise that on the opposite end of the tempo spectrum is Jansen, who has averaged 24.8 seconds between pitches with the bases empty (fifth-longest), and 29.9 with runners on (fourth-longest), over the last three seasons combined. Statcast estimates that the pitch-clock time would shave six seconds off each of those averages, still leaving Jansen at 18.8 and 23.9, which is well over the pitch clock's 15 and 20 second caps. He's a pitcher to monitor accordingly during spring training.

Jeremy Pena: Including the playoffs, Pena's 2022 season was full of highs and lows.

  • Through 5/29: 41 G, .290/.340/.510, 22.5% strikeout rate, 40.5% ground ball rate, 41.8% hard-hit rate

  • 5/30-9/8: 72 G, .226/.254/.347, 26.9 K%, 53.1 GB%, 32.1 HH%

  • 9/9 forward: 36 G, .308/.336/.582, 20.8 K%, 44.0 GB%, 45.6 HH%

Pena's chase rate was nearly 40% and among the game's worst in either of the latter two splits. This is the "A-number-one" area in which he needs to improve for 2023 in order to take another step forward statistically.

Luis Robert: What happened to his speed? Statcast has his sprint speed declining from the 96th percentile in 2020 (29.1 feet/second), to the 73rd in 2021 (28.0), to the 65th in 2022 (27.9). Barring some kind of speed rebirth during the Cactus League season, beware expecting a return anywhere near the 30/30 levels he had in the minors in 2019.

Adley Rutschman: After hitting his first career home run off Jose Berrios in his 84th career trip to the plate, here's where Rutschman's numbers ranked among fantasy catcher-eligibles from that point forward: 257 fantasy points (first), 93 games played (first), .379 wOBA (second), 388 plate appearances (second), 88 games started (third), 158 total bases (third). Remarkably, he hasn't even hit his full stride yet, as he hit for better contact and more power in the minors than he did as a rookie in 2022. Those who say he's capable of a .300-30 season in the relatively near future -- myself included -- aren't off-base.

Framber Valdez: His streak of 25 quality starts between 4/25 and 9/18 last season set a record for pitchers within a single season. Bob Gibson (1967-68) and Jacob deGrom (2018-19) had 26-game QS streaks that spanned multiple years. Valdez's 67.4% ground ball rate was also the highest by an ERA-qualified pitcher since Brett Anderson's 67.4% rate (better by mere percentage points) in 2015. To date, Valdez and Anderson are the only two qualified pitchers during the Statcast era to do that and also allow sub-90 mph average exit velocity on batted balls. You can't ask for a much more hard contact-suppressing skill set than that, which is why Valdez has one of the highest statistical floors of any pitcher in baseball.

Juan Soto: If anyone's giving you even fifty cents' worth of a discount on his draft price this preseason, snatch him up quickly. Though his batting average plunged 67 points last season, his Statcast expected batting average dropped only 39 points, a tipoff that bad luck was at play. To the point about luck, here's another split that supports Soto's 2022 being an outlier:

  • Runners on base, 2018-21: .304/.473/.545, 2.2 HR%, 0.25 RBI per plate appearance

  • Runners on base, 2022: .204/.384/.340, 4.2 HR%, 0.36 RBI/PA

Kyle Gibson: Among ERA-qualified pitchers last season, Gibson scored the greatest percentage of his fantasy points (69.0%) against the majors' eight lowest-scoring teams, all of which averaged four runs per game or fewer. Expanding that group to include pitchers who made at least 24 starts -- that's 75% of a 32-start season -- here were the greatest such percentages:

Walker and Carlos Carrasco made the most starts against those eight teams, with 13 apiece. They generated 72.0% and 52.6% of their seasonal fantasy points in those starts, a concern for the former especially as he heads to a more hitting-friendly environment in Philadelphia this season.

Kevin Gausman: Meanwhile, Gausman faced the majors' nine highest-scoring teams (all of which averaged at least 4.5 runs per game) the most often among ERA qualifiers. Gausman made 13-of-31 starts against these foes, totaling 57.8% of his fantasy points. That puts his sneaky-good 2022 in quite a different light.

Here's the full list of pitchers with at least 24 starts who scored the greatest percentage of their fantasy points against the majors' nine best offenses:

As Berrios is also on the above list, here's something to think about: Between Gausman, Berrios, Alek Manoah and Ross Stripling, the Blue Jays' top four starters in 2022 made 43-of-118 starts against these top-nine offenses. Conversely, new Blue Jays starter Chris Bassitt made only 10-of-30 starts against bottom-eight offenses, scoring 48.0% of his fantasy points against those foes. Bassitt averaged 19.0 fantasy points against bottom-eight offenses, but only 13.0 in his 11 starts against top-nine offenses. It's wise to temper your expectations with him slightly.

Spencer Strider: His rookie year couldn't have gone much better than it did, but don't leap to a regression claim simply assuming that it can't happen again. After all, Strider did dabble with a third pitch, his changeup, last season, and further progress with the pitch might allow him to actually take another step forward. Strider threw his changeup 109 times in 2022 and, among pitchers who threw at least that many, his 47.5% miss rate when hitters swung was seventh-best. He struggled mightily to locate it, evidenced by his finishing 215th (among 239 qualifiers) with a 28.4% rate of locating it in the strike zone, but with any greater handle on it, Strider's stock could soar.